Last Living Plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education Dies

By Mark Walsh — May 21, 2008 1 min read
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Zelma Henderson, the last surviving plaintiff of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation lawsuit against the Topeka school system, has died at age 88 after a fight against pancreatic cancer, according to news reports.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports here, and the Associated Press reports here.

The Topeka paper reports that Henderson grew up in Oakley, Kan., “where she attended school and socialized with whites. She resented the segregation she encountered after moving to Topeka in the 1940s.”

Her children, Donald, 6, and Vicki, 4, attended classes at the all-black McKinley Elementary School in Topeka at the time the lawsuit was filed, the paper reports.

“The school was about 10 blocks farther away than the white Quincy Elementary,” it said.

Henderson was one of 13 plaintiffs in the Topeka case, all of whom were women except for Oliver Brown, whose name would become synonymous with the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that separate schools for black and white students were inherently unequal.

The Topeka Capital-Journal also reports that Henderson helped provide inspiration to the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, founded by Oliver Brown’s daughters, in the push to save one formerly all-black school and turn it into a national historic site and museum.

That school, Monroe Elementary, was dedicated by President Bush in 2004 as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Education Week reported on the effort to transform the school into a museum here, and on the dedication here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.